Estonia is an independent state created after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The nucleus of the Estonian Jewish community was founded by Jewish soldiers after their demobilization from the army of Czar Nicholas I in the mid-19th century. Today, approximately 1,700 Jews live in Estonia.
- Early History
- Growth of the Jewish Community
- World War II & Communism
- Modern Jewish Community
There is little information regarding the arrival of
Jews in Estonia. There are, according to archive materials, individual
reports of Jews in Estonia as early as the fourteenth century. This,
however, should not be considered the starting point for a permanent
Jewish settlement in the region. In fact, Jews were prohibited from
living in Estonia.
The process of Jewish settlement in Estonia began in
the nineteenth century, when an 1865 statute by Tsar Alexander II granted
them the right to enter the region. This allowed the so-called ‘Nicholas
soldiers and their descendants, kantonists, First Guild tradesmen,
artisans and Jews to settle in Estonia and other parts of the empire.
The Nicholas soldiers and artisans founded the first Jewish congregations
in Estonia. The Tallinn congregation, the largest in Estonia, was founded
in 1830. The Tartu congregation was established in 1866 when the first
fifty families settled there.
A Jewish congregation does not exist without its synagogue;
the largest of which was constructed in Tallinn in 1883 and in Tartu
in 1901. Both of these were subsequently destroyed by fire in World
As time passed, the Jewish population spread to other
Estonian cities where houses of prayer and cemeteries were erected at
Valga, Pärnu and Viljandi. At that time, the Jews sought to establish
their own network of education. Yeshivot were established for the teaching of the Talmud,
and elementary schools were organized in Tallinn in the 1880s. The majority
of the Jewish population at that time consisted of small tradesmen and
artisans, very few were literate and Jewish cultural life lagged.
A change was brought about at the end of the nineteenth
century when Jews entered the University
of Tartu. University students did much to enliven Jewish culture
and education. 1917 saw the founding of the Jewish Drama Club in Tartu.
Approximately 200 Jews fought in combat for the creation
of the Republic of Estonia, and 70 of these men were volunteers. The
creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of
a new era for the Jews. From the very first days of her existence as
a state, Estonia showed her tolerance towards all the peoples inhabiting
her territories. The government sought ways to overcome national hostilities
and discrimination. This set the stage for energetic growth in the political
and cultural activities of Jewish society.
Growth of the Jewish Community
Between May 11–16, 1919, the first Estonian Congress
of Jewish congregations was convened to discuss the new circumstances
Jewish life was confronting. This is where the ideas of cultural autonomy
and a Jewish Gymnasium (secondary school) in Tallinn were born. Jewish
societies and associations began to grow in numbers. The largest of
these new societies was the H. N. Bjalik Literature and Drama Society
in Tallinn founded in 1918. Societies and clubs were established in
Viljandi, Narva, and elsewhere. In 1920, the Maccabi Sports Society
was founded and became well-known for its endeavors to encourage sports
among Jews. Jews also took an active part in sporting events in Estonia
and abroad. Sara Teitelbaum was a 17-time champion in Estonian athletics
and established no less than 28 records. In the 1930s there were about
100 Jews studying at the University of Tartu. In 1934, a chair was established
in the School of Philosophy for the study of Judaica. There were five
Jewish student societies in Tartu Academic Society, the Womens
Student Society Hazfiro, the Corporation Limuvia, the Society Hasmonea
and the Endowment for Jewish Students. All of these had their own libraries
and played important roles in Jewish culture and social life. Political
organizations such as Hasomer Hazair and Beitar were also established.
Many Jewish youth traveled to Palestine to establish the Jewish State.
The renowned kibbutzim of Kfar Blum and Ein Gev were set up in part by Jews from Estonia.
In 1919, a Jewish elementary school was founded by
the Tallinn congregation. Its first class graduated in 1923. At the
request of the parents, the first gymnasium class started in the autumn
of 1923 and the second class followed in 1924. In its first year, 223
pupils studied there. In 1924, a new schoolhouse was constructed at
the expense of the small Jewish community and what they could not pay
for themselves they borrowed. The Gymnasium played a very important
roll in Jewish cultural life in Tallinn and all of Estonia until 1940.
The Maccabi Sports Society operated there, lectures were read, get-togethers
were organized, soirees, balls, theatrics, and song and dance showed
the many facets society offered. Samuel Gurin served as director from
1925 when the gymnasium was officially established until its liquidation
by the Soviet authorities
On 12 February 1925, the dream was fulfilled. The Estonian
government passed a law pertaining to the cultural autonomy of minority
peoples. This was a logical step forward in the national policies of
the Estonian Republic. The Jewish community quickly prepared its application
for cultural autonomy. Statistics on Jewish citizens were compiled.
They totaled 3,045, fulfilling the minimum requirement of 3000 for cultural
autonomy. In June 1926 the Jewish Cultural Council was elected and Jewish
cultural autonomy was declared. The administrative organ of this autonomy
was the Board of Jewish Culture, headed by Hirsch Aisenstadt until it
was disbanded in 1940. When the German troops occupied Estonia in 1941, Aisenstadt evacuated to Russia.
He returned to Estonia when the Germans had left, but was arrested by
the Soviet authorities in 1949.
The cultural autonomy of minority peoples is an exceptional
phenomenon in European cultural history. Jewish cultural autonomy was
of great interest to global Jewish community. The Jewish National Endowment
presented the Estonian government with a certificate of gratitude for
In 1936, the tenth anniversary of Jewish cultural
autonomy was celebrated. The Board of Jewish Culture worked actively.
Boards of trustees were established in many of the larger cities.
Three schools operated: the gymnasium in Tallinn, a secondary school
in Tartu and an elementary school in Valga. In the 1930s, 352 pupils
were enrolled in Jewish schools, i.e., 55% of the school-age
population. In cities with few Jewish children language and history
lessons were organized by the local cultural boards of trustees.
There were Jewish kindergartens established in Tallinn, Tartu, Narva,
Viljandi and Pärnu.
In 1934, there were 4,381 Jews living in Estonia (0.4
percent of the population) and 2,203 Jews lived in Tallinn. Other cities
of residence included Tartu (920), Valga (262), Pärnu (248), Narva (188)
and Viljandi (121). A total of 1,688 Jews contributed to the national
economy: 31% in commerce, 24% in services, 14.5% were artisans, and
14% were laborers. There was also large business: the leather factory
Uzvanski and Sons in Tartu, the Ginovkeris Candy Factory in Tallinn,
furriers Ratner and Hoff and forest improvement companies such as Seins
and Judeiniks. There was a society for tradesmen and industrialists.
Tallinn and Tartu boasted Jewish cooperative banks. Only 9.5% of the
Jewish population worked freelance. Most of these were physicians, over
80 in all. In addition, there were 16 pharmacists and 4 veterinarians.
11% of the Jewish population had received higher education, 37% secondary
education and 33% elementary education. 18% had only received home education.
This small Jewish community established its own social
welfare system. The Jewish Goodwill Society of the Tallinn Congregation
made it their business to oversee and execute the ambitions of this
system. The Jewish Assistance Union was active in Tartu, and welfare
units were set up in Narva, Valga and Pärnu.
World War II & Communism
The peaceful and active life of the small Jewish community
in Estonia came to an abrupt halt in 1940 with the Soviet occupation
of Estonia. Cultural autonomy in addition to all of its institutions
was liquidated in July 1940. In July and August of the same year all
organizations, associations, societies and corporations were closed.
A large group of Jews (about 400) were deported on 14 June 1941. After
the German occupation later in 1941, all Jews who had failed to flee
were murdered. According to data from Israel, 1,000 Estonian Jews were
executed in 1941.
After the war, a number
of Jews who had previously fled to the Soviet
Union returned to Soviet-occupied Estonia.
There was, however, no rebirth of Jewish
cultural life. Communist Party policies were hostile to Jews and were implemented as part
of an Anti-Zionism campaign. Hence, in addition to physical destruction,
the Jews in Estonia met moral and cultural catastrophe.
Only the congregation as a religious unit was
operative. One of its duties was to take care of the Rahumäe
Cemetery. No synagogue was erected and services were conducted in a
house of prayer which was in poor repair. Jews were not allowed to
learn their own language and history, nor to practice their
traditions. Some people found guilty of learning Hebrew were
sentenced to time in prison camps. There were establishments and
offices where Jews were not allowed to work. The Soviet authorities
used two categories: citizenship (Soviet) and nationality (Jew,
Estonian, Russian etc.) which were stated in the persons passport.
Some people even tried to change their nationality. Thus the Soviet
Union extinguished the historical memory of the Jewish community: the
young were no longer aware of their own ethnic background. Parents
and grandparents were afraid of telling children of their heritage.
Moral genocide of approx. 2.5 million Jews was implemented in the
Soviet Union. People were not allowed to investigate the Jewish
genocide which happened during the German occupation. The archives
were off limits to Jewish researchers.
In addition, Jews had difficulty gaining admittance
to institutions of higher education, especially in Moscow, Leningrad
and Kiev. For this reason, young people striving to quench their thirst
for knowledge attended the University of Tartu and the Polytechnical
Institute in Tallinn (now known as the Technical University). Young
Jews arrived in Estonia from Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere. If they
were unable to find jobs in their home towns, they did not have that
problem in Estonia. Many of the new arrivals became professors and department
heads at the University of Tartu. Some even achieved world renown such
as Jury Lotman, a professor in semiotics. In the 1970s Jews also started
coming to Estonia on their way to Israel or the United States. Estonia,
for good reason, became known as a place from which it was easy to leave
the Soviet Union.
From 1940 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish
community, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, had no organizations,
associations nor even clubs.
In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established
in Tallinn. It was the first of its kind in the entire Soviet Empire.
There was a lack of experience in organizing the workings of a national
cultural society and, of course, no rooms were available. But the enthusiasm
generated enough momentum to accomplish many things despite failing
resources. The Society began by organizing concerts and lectures. Jewish
people, deprived of the possibility of any cultural activities for fifty
years, joined in. Soon the question of founding a Jewish school surfaced.
As a start, a Sunday school was established in 1989. The Tallinn Jewish
Gymnasium on Karu Street was being used by a vocational school. An agreement
was reached with the director which allowed the Sunday School to use
the school rooms. In 1990, a Jewish School was established.
Jewish culture clubs, which remained under the
wing of the Cultural Society, were started in Tartu, Narva and
Kohtla-Järve. Other organizations followed; the sports society
Maccabi, the Society for the Gurini Goodwill Endowment and the Jewish
Veterans Union. Life returned to the Jewish congregation. Courses in
Hebrew were re-established. Thanks to the Jewish communities of
Israel and other countries a relatively large library was opened.
The gamut of cultural activities kept on growing. The
Jewish Cultural Society is a founding member of Eestimaa Rahvuste
Ühendus (Union of Estonian Peoples) which was founded at the end
The restoration of Estonian independence in 1991 brought
about numerous political, economic and social changes. The Jews living
in Estonia could now defend their rights as a national minority. The
Jewish Community was established in 1992, and its charter was approved
on April 11, 1992.
The Jewish Community in Estonia acts as an umbrella
organization for the above-mentioned organizations and societies if
they so desire. As members they also retain their autonomous structures.
Presently the community consists of about 1,000 Jews. Most recently,
a Jewish synagogue was re-opened in Tallinn. The membership is dominated
by pensioners (over 50%) and this presents some obstacles. The community
is headed by the council, elected by the whole membership. The councils
activities are co-ordinated by the chair and two assistants who are
chosen from the ranks of the council.
The Community is active in the
- The elaboration of an education system, the
organization of culturally oriented activities, and the promotion
of historical research.
- The allocation of social welfare for families
elderly, invalids, accident victims etc.
- The allocation of aid to Aliya (the
repatriation of Jews to Israel).
- The representation of Jewish rights in
A part of Jewish tradition is loyalty and support to
the people and state where they live. Likewise, Estonia has traditionally
regarded its Jews with friendship and accommodation. To illustrate this,
a new Cultural Autonomy Act, based on the 1925 law, was passed in October
1993. This law grants minority peoples, such as Jews, a legal guarantee
to preserve their national identities.
In July 2005, Estonia unveiled a memorial stone in the
former concentration camp in
Klooga. Altogether 22 memorials honoring the Jews killed in Estonia
during World War II are
slated to be erected. Some 1,500 Estonian Jews died during the war,
and an estimated 10,000 Jews were killed in Estonia after having been
deported to camps there from elsewhere in Eastern
Recently the Chabad Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish movement appointed the country's first Rabbi since the early 1940s, Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot.
On May 2007 the community celebrated the opening of its first synagogue since the country's Jewish community was destroyed in the Holocaust.
The new synagogue, which can fit 180 people in the main worship area, was built at a cost of about $2 million with money from the US-based Rohr family foundation and Estonian Jews and non-Jews.